Checkpoint: Man of the digital people

"The Political Machine 2016" is a telling mirror image of real life events. (Photo from YouTube screenshot)

In my review of “The Political Machine 2016” last week, I speculated about what the victory of my psychotic alter-ego Budsy McGee in the game’s simulation of the general election means for the United States. In a strictly practical purpose, it probably means very little, although I hope that at least one person saw my article and resolved to go to the polls to prevent Budsy from ever rising to power. In a theoretical sense, however, which, let’s face it, is basically what political science is, games like “Political Machine” tell us a lot about how we see our leaders and our government.

Although sales figures for the “Political Machine” series aren’t publicly available, I think we can reasonably estimate that it’s at least somewhat popular. “2016” is the fourth edition of the game series, which began in 2004, and everyone that I’ve spoken to about the game has been at least marginally interested in the simulator. The best way to compare the game to reality, then, is to go through the major mechanics and compare them to their real-world counterparts. First, arguably the most important trait in the game is stamina, and for good reason. You can’t be a hall of famer if you can’t stay on the field, and you won’t become president by going to bed at nine o’clock. Injuries derailed Texas governor Rick Perry’s campaign back in 2012, and not everyone has the staying power for the campaign trail. A low stamina will doom you in “Political Machine” just as it will in real life, so I’ll give Stardock props for getting that right.

Money and fundraising ability are the next two major categories, and while having the charisma to get money from people is very important for presidential candidates, I have yet to deduce what the “money” attribute is supposed to represent. You could argue that some presidential candidates can afford to spend their own money, but if you’re at the stage where you’re plundering your own bank account to build a campaign headquarters in Wisconsin, you’re probably already done for.

As I mentioned in my review of the game, “Political Machine” places a strong emphasis on building up a network of campaign headquarters, consulting firms and outreach offices, which increase your money, political capital and outreach points respectively. Although it’s simplified for the game’s purposes, this is also extremely important in real life. Being able to organize and direct your supporters, recruit valuable political operatives and get key endorsements is the mark of a great candidate, so Stardock mostly gets this one right. I should point out, however, that most candidates don’t build their own headquarters from scratch, when an unused office building for rent will do just as well.

One part of the series that really bothered me after a while was the minimal impact that media seems to make on your campaign. Over the course of an in-game campaign you might conduct a dozen interviews on everything from “Bill O’Malley” show to “60 seconds” without seeing your poll numbers move one iota. This is unrealistic, as candidates that get the media on their side, such as JFK, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama have historically been the winners. If the media doesn’t like you, it can spell doom for your campaign, as it did for Mitt Romney, Michael Dukakis and Richard Nixon during his first presidential campaign.

Overall, I’m not convinced that Budsy McGee would have a shot in reality. Although qualities like stamina are important, the developer’s failure to appreciate the impact that the media makes is a major oversight. The game also lacks things like debates and controversies, and how a candidate handles those situations can be a major factor in whether they get votes. I stand by what I said in my review, that “Political Machine” remains a fun toy, but as a simulator it has a long way to go before I would use it to predict anything.


Edward Pankowski is life editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at edward.pankowski@uconn.edu.